Emotional states during learning situations

In a new paper published in Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training, researchers tried to understand if students’ emotional states in the classroom are affected by personal characteristics, their so-called “self-regulation” abilities, which allow them to perform better and to transform goals into concrete actions, or rather, by the context around them in the classroom, or by a combination of the two.

It is nowadays uncontested that the cognitive and the emotional sides of behavior and action regulation are inseparably connected, so this is why students’ emotional states are considered as important and integral components of learning and achievement processes. Do I understand the matter? Am I interested? Do I feel pressure? Am I doing something meaningful for me now?

In this empirical study conducted in 4 classes in a German vocational (professional) school, Tobias Kärner from the University of Bamberg and Kristina Kögler from the University of Frankfurt, tried to “catch” the volatility of individual experiences in the classroom by measuring students’ emotional states with a continuous-state-sampling method: through a portable digital data-entry tool, students rated every 7 minutes their current situation-specific experience on a scale from 0 to 100: “I understand subject matter,” “Time to reflect is adequate for me,” “I’m interested,” “Currently, I’m doing something meaningful.”

The analysis of the results revealed that students’ self-regulation capacities affect their emotional states.

From the empirical data, researchers could identify two different kinds of students, “action-oriented” and “state-oriented,” on the basis of their self-regulation abilities: “Most of the things I plan to do are put into action,” “I am cheering myself up to make things work,” “I am feeling dull,” “I kick many things down the road.”

In the context of self-regulation theory, action- and state-oriented individuals behave very differently in the way they manage emotions, motivate themselves, are oriented to goals and, in a learning setting, they perform in terms of academic achievement. Through the empirical data collected in this sample, researchers found empirical grounding for the self-regulation theory, and could associate low and unfavourable self-regulation abilities with state-oriented students, and high/favorable self-regulation abilities with action-oriented students.

In demanding situations, state-oriented individuals are often trapped in states of negative experience, anticipating negative consequences from not reaching a goal or not acting, and ruminating extensively over their failures, thus wasting energies, losing attentiveness and performing less. They are more influenced by intrusive thoughts, and they tend to put off goal-related activities. State-oriented students normally possess the appropriate knowledge structures to perform well, but the knowledge loses applicability in demanding situations.

In contrast, action-oriented students are able to reduce their negative affect under stress to a greater degree, they show better emotion-regulation and better performance under stress, and they pursue individual goals against internal and external oppositions without self-infiltration.

The analysis of the results revealed that students’ self-regulation capacities affect their emotional states. In addition, certain data seem to confirm the benefits of student-centered learning (as shown in other empirical studies), as it enhances learners’ problem solving activities and their socio-emotional development, compared to a more traditional teacher-centered style. However, researchers believe that further studies should be carried out in this field, concluding that a deeper knowledge about the complex interrelations between personality characteristics, emotional states, and learning situations are essential for a better design of teaching and learning environments.

Read more about the details of this study on the fully open-access journal Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training, with many others examples of ground-breaking research in the field of professional and technical education.

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